The Key Question of Every Liturgy

There is a legend that explains how the liturgy and the faith took hold in Rus (Russia):

Prince Vladimir of Kiev, seeking a right worship for his people, sent representatives to look into various faiths as well as liturgies. When emissaries went south to observe the Greek Christian Liturgy, they returned saying that they were not sure if they had been in Heaven or on Earth, so beautiful was what they had seen in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. They were sure that God dwelt there among men.

The roots of Christian faith among the Russians are obviously a lot more complicated. However, the legend does capture the fact that the Byzantine Liturgy of the Eastern Church was a significant factor in advancing Christianity among the people who populate what is today Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia, and other nearby lands.

Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), although noting the legendary quality of the story, underscored that the Sacred Liturgy can and does have a missionary quality that can inspire and draw others to the one true God.

Exactly how the liturgy does this, however, is a matter of debate. Some say that it is essentially the beauty of the liturgy and its ability to draw us away from the mundane that leads people to God. Others emphasize the liturgy’s ability to teach; the elements of the liturgy must be intelligible and easily grasped by the faithful and made applicable to daily life.

Of course we want to avoid a false dichotomy, in which one vision must be chosen to the exclusion of the other. Both notions have important insights. Yet in our time it is clear that at least in the Roman Liturgy, the emphasis has fallen on making the liturgy more intelligible and “relevant” to modern life, than ethereal and meant to draw us up and out of the ordinary through sublime beauty.

Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in 2005, said of this trend,

The way of thinking about “missionary liturgy” that became widespread in the fifties is, at the least, ambiguous and problematical. In many circles, among people concerned with liturgy, it led, in a quite inappropriate fashion, to turning a didactic element in the liturgy, and its comprehensibility even for outsiders, into the primary standard for shaping liturgical celebrations. Likewise, the saying that the choice of liturgical forms must be made with respect to “pastoral” points of view betrays the same anthropocentric error. The liturgy is then being constructed entirely for men. … Thus suggestions for styling liturgy became profane models, drawn for instance from the way meetings are held … or socialization rituals. God does not actually play a role there; it is all concerned with winning people over, or keeping them happy and satisfying their demands. … No faith [is] aroused in that way (Theology of the Liturgy, p. 332).

His language is quite strong here. Yet the influence of anthropocentricism (the belief that man rather than God is the central or most important entity in existence) in liturgy remains a consistent, troubling trend. It is a hard mentality to break in a culture so centered on consumerism and “pleasing the customer.” This may work well in markets, but in faith and to some degree in education, it is a harmful trend. God, the liturgy, and truth itself do not exist to please us, but rather to summon us to challenging heights, beyond our mere pleasures and passions.

I have written about anthropocentrism in greater detail before (here). While we obviously cannot wholly abandon a notion of the liturgy being intelligible, we are ultimately being drawn into mysteries above and beyond us. Thus, the liturgy should have mysterious and sublime aspects.

In the same essay, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote,

What persuaded the emissaries of the Russian Prince of the truth of the faith celebrated in the … liturgy was not … arguments that seemed clearer than those of other religions. What moved them was in fact the mystery as such, which demonstrated the power of the truth actually, transcending the arguments of reason … The Byzantine liturgy was not, and is not, concerned to indoctrinate other people or show them how pleasing and entertaining it might be. What was impressive about it was particularly its sheer lack of practical purpose, the fact that it was being done for God and not for spectators. … It was simply striving to be pleasing to God as the sacrifice of Abel had been pleasing to God … turning the gaze toward God was what allowed God’s light to stream down [and] … be detected even by outsiders (Ibid, p. 331-332).

And there is the money quote: it was being done for God and not for spectators. … It was simply striving to be pleasing to God.

How different this is from today, when the liturgy seems so focused on us! Everything must be understood (using the vernacular both literally and figuratively). Music must not be too taxing; it must be something the people can easily sing along with. Rituals must not be too elaborate. Ironically, in the one place where intelligibility is most important (the homily), it is often said that it should be brief, more exhortatory than instructive.

None of these things are intrinsically bad, but they are out of balance. There is little notion that the liturgy is directed first and foremost to God, that it is worship of God, that the rituals are for Him and are a sacrifice of praise, not merely a ceremony that pleases us.

It is fair to say that in the older form of the Roman Rite (especially low Mass) the people were so uninvolved as to be almost unnecessary, an afterthought. Everything was done by the priest and the servers. But perhaps we have overcorrected. Turning toward the people, introducing more vernacular, and simplifying the rites were seen as a way to involve and reintegrate the whole people of God, the whole Body of Christ, into the sacred action of Christ as Head and High Priest giving perfect worship to the Father.

Now may be the time for us to consider bringing back the balance we have lost, reintroducing sacred language, and teaching that God and the worship of Him are the essential focus of our liturgy. A gentle reintroduction of orienting especially the Eucharistic Prayer toward God through a unified posture and direction of all toward the cross may be helpful (under the guidance of the bishop). The Liturgy of the Word can and should remain directed toward the people, for they are the target of this proclamation.

Many will debate exactly what should be done and how quickly, but it seems clear that balance needs to be restored in most parish settings. The ultimate goal, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, is that our Liturgy be done for God more so than for man, that we simply strive to be pleasing to God. The inclusion of God’s people is important, but not in a way that neglects our collective purpose of worshiping God, who is worthy of our sacrifice of praise. The liturgy should not be reduced merely to what pleases us.

Pope Benedict observed elsewhere that for those who prefer traditional Liturgy there is also a risk in reducing the liturgy to mere aestheticism, in which what is considered beautiful and more ancient is preferred for only those reasons. The manifestation may be loftier and less worldly, but the error is the same: that the liturgy’s purpose is to cater to man’s tastes. Things in the traditional arena can get very particular, such that Roman vs. Gothic vestments, tabernacle veils vs. none, or a missed genuflection by the celebrant can become contentious issues and lead to uncharitable remarks after Mass.

There is not room in this post to lay out the essentials of liturgy as Scripture sets them forth. (I have done that on the blog in the past: here.) God gave at least the essentials to Moses on Mount Sinai, to His disciples at the Last Supper, and to John in Revelation 4, 5, and 8. From these essentials we build and set our focus on what pleases God.

The deepest questions to answer after any liturgy should be these: “Was God worshipped?” and “Was God the true focus of our hearts?”.

9 Replies to “The Key Question of Every Liturgy”

  1. Good article. Our priest wisely said that the three elements of a good homily were: be good, be brief and be gone. Our attention spans are short and even if the Cure D’Ars were to speak, most of it would be lost on our distracted minds. Better to make a few good short points and end it. The focus of the Protestant service is on the homily. The summit of our liturgy is at the Canon of the Mass. I recall a priest at St. Agnes in NYC whose piety when confecting the Eucharist was so deep that tears came to his eyes at the very moment the Lord was being made present on the Altar. The world stood still at that very moment.

    1. Yes, although there are cultural dimensions at work too. African Americans and to some extent Hispanics appreciate a longer sermon and are in less of a hurry to be done with the liturgy.

  2. I grow weary of clapping for this, that, or the other person(s) before I hear the words “The Mass has ended…” While I don’t particularly like the clapping during a Mass at all, if we must do that, just once I’d love to hear ‘and now how about a round of applause for the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords who suffered and died for you personally! That your sorry behind might – I say “might,” repent and believe and be saved from your wretched selves.’

    At 49 years of age I participated in my first Latin Mass and I would argue that the ‘beauty,’ of the Mass is that clearly it wasn’t about the “people.” There was no music director & choir up near the front to behold. It was about Jesus the Most Holy Eucharist.

  3. “No faith [is] aroused in that way.”

    This is expounded upon in Homiletic Directory 71-72:

    “The stage is set for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, a conversation that is profound because it speaks of the fundamental realities of eternal life and true prayer. It is an illuminating conversation, because it manifests the pedagogy of faith. Jesus and the woman are initially talking on different levels. Her practical, concrete mind is centered on the water in the well. Jesus, as if oblivious of her practical concerns, insists on speaking about the living waters of grace. Since their discourses fail to meet, Jesus touches upon the most painful moment of her life: her irregular marital situation. This recognition of her frailty immediately opens her mind to the mystery of God, and she then asks about prayer. When she follows the invitation to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, she is filled with grace and is quick to share her discovery with those in her own town.

    Faith, nourished by the Word of God, by the Eucharist and by the fulfilment of the will of the Father, opens to the mystery of grace that is depicted through the image of “living water.” Moses struck the rock, and water flowed out; the soldier pierced the side of Christ, and blood and water flowed out. Mindful of this, the Church puts these words on the lips of the people as they process forward to receive Communion: “For anyone who drinks it, says the Lord, the water I shall give will become in him a spring welling up to eternal life.”

    But we are not the only ones who are thirsty. The Preface for today’s Mass says: “When he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink, he had already created the gift of faith within her and so ardently did he thirst for her faith, that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.” The Jesus who sat down by the well was tired and thirsty. (In fact, the homilist may want to point out how the Gospels on these three Sundays underscore Christ’s humanity: his exhaustion as he sat by the well, his making a mud with paste to heal the blind man, and his tears at the grave of Lazarus.) The thirst of Jesus will reach its climax in the final moments of his life, when from the Cross he cries out, “I thirst!” This is what it means for him to do the will of the one who sent him and to finish his work. Then from his pierced Heart flows the eternal life that nourishes us in the sacraments, giving us who worship in spirit and in truth the nourishment we need as we continue our pilgrimage.”

  4. A liturgy that offers me a surrogate worshiper is of little value. I need to hear and say the words of adoration and worship. Worship is not some unintelligible foreign language with my surrogate’s arms forming crosses from all angles.
    Yes, it is nice to occasionally see a High Latin Mass with all of its pomp. However, it is good to see and hear. But these are passive acts. I can not consider it as my prayer of love and adoration.
    This conclusion is born of sixteen years of Catholic education, daily Mass since retirement and much Catholic study.

    1. Yes, but it is unnecessarily dismissive in its description of the Liturgy that sustained the Church for over a thousand years

  5. Thank you, Msgr Pope. Is God being worshipped? Are we Cain or Abel? Who are we pleasing? These are great questions for us to ponder upon as we prepare for Mass, participate in the Mass and live our lives in between each Mass.

  6. Very good post, as usual, Monsignor. My thought on parishioners becoming the focus of the liturgy is that in the end it actually contributes to the Church losing parishioners. More than twenty five years ago when I was away from the Church for a time, I remember being surprised at the number of former Catholics in those “feel good” churches. Many other Christian churches have perfected the art of parishioner focused services. The end result, IMHO is that even when a Catholic parish attempts to be parishioner focused, we become, (in some ways) just another Christian church, and we don’t do it as well as they do. Secondly, many of those churches are losing people at a faster rate than the Catholic Church, so in the end, we were made for holiness that can’t be obtained at any church other than the one that Christ created. With that said, we are in need of much more balance and I agree that the solution isn’t to swing too far the other way either.
    I do have a question that maybe some of the other readers can address. It has been a small pet peeve of mine that some parishes do their second collection right after communion. In the short time available after receiving, I want to spend those moments focused on the amazing thing that just took place and be with the Lord with all of my being. Does anyone know why some parishes do this and others don’t? We always give to the second collection, but it sure is distracting.

  7. “Balance” without losing Catholic Tradition and ethnic culture, should be sought. I have been in both settings, protestant and Catholic. Both churches struggle with balance and focus on this “one thing” we call God, His son. The Holy Mass is an extension, I believe, of who we strive to be. We must live out this holiness in the Church and not outside it. We do this sanctification, through our gifts and talents. Also by expressing our love for God by working in the Church and so forth. Every gift can not be shared on Sunday morning. I believe that’s what’s going wrong. We use the Mass for things it is not intended to do. What we need is Church minitries, that help to live out what we hear on Sunday. That’s the disconnect, I think. Its about relationships, with each other. True friendship brings about a love for the Mass. I could say more about this disconnection but for now, I’ll just say “make a friend in Church”. You’ll love the Mass and God more if you do.

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